Friday, September 27, 2013

A Brush With Color

Humans are good at making things complicated; it's a defining characteristic. Sure, a few animals can use simple tools, but do they have 17 kinds of hammer and a Hammer Museum? I don't think so.

I want to write a few blog posts about LEGO colors, and thought I should brush up on the LEGO color palette. Seems like a simple question, right, "what colors does LEGO come in?"

Oh my.

Just for starters, that seemingly simple question breaks down into sub-questions such as:
  • What kind of colors do you mean? There are solid colors, transparent colors, metallic colors, but also colors of textile, string parts, and decals
  • What time period are you talking about? There are 30 or more solid colors that aren't in 2013 sets, and even defining "current" colors is a little tricky
  • What LEGO systems are you talking about? A few colors appear only in Duplo, Modulex, Fabuland, or other systems
  • Where are you using your colors? Lego Digital Designer has a more limited palette (though Extended Mode has more colors), or are you going on the market to buy older parts with other colors?
New AFOLs may also be surprised to find that we don't even agree on what the colors of just authentic LEGO bricks are named. Heck, we can even have legal battles about it. There are official LEGO names and IDs, which can be a bit clunky so there are also colloquial names, plus the unofficial names and IDs used on BrickLink and Peeron -- for that matter, there are even minor name variations in LEGO's own software product, Lego Digital Designer. Pretty quickly you need a cross reference chart to know what people are talking about.

It seems bizarre at first to find that kind of complexity in just one attribute of LEGO. But it should be no surprise. LEGO has been making parts for decades, the product changes (e.g., the whole grey vs. bley debacle), and it's a big company with thousands of employees and millions of customers of all ages. There's no way all those people are going to agree, on any given day, on what the colors are or even what they're called.

After looking at all that, I decided to use what's in Lego Digital Designer (version 4.3) as my starting point. The palette in Extended Mode in LDD is basically the same (give or take a couple colors) as what Bricklink lists as colors current for 2013, without dwelling too much on historical colors I'm not likely to be buying.

Here are the 41 solid and 15 transparent colors in the LDD palette, roughly grouped together in the order they appear in LDD (click for color IDs and names):

Even this simple grouping contains a few interesting things:
  • Where's that extra shade of grey coming from? Turns out it's a Light Stone Grey found in a few non-mainstream parts. Rats.
  • Not much red, is there? Unless you count all those reddish browns. Turns out one good strong accent red is what you mostly need.
  • Speaking of browns, there are quite a lot aren't there? Although we'll see later that most aren't widely used.
  • In the rightmost column, we can really see the cool new magenta-oriented colors that have come up with Friends and other sets in the last few years.
If you're used to graphic design tools like Photoshop, the colors n the LDD color picker can seem a little jumbled. The official LEGO reference provides a little more structure, but not much. A couple of references such as Peeron provide RGB and CMYK values, so I tried making a CMYK color wheel:

In this view, Yellow is top left, Cyan is top right, and Magenta is to the bottom, with saturation decreasing toward white in the center. The height of each brick indicates Black; lower bricks have more Black. (Take this with a grain of salt -- I'm no graphing expert, plus I guessed for some colors without CMYK values.)

Ok, yeah, it's still kinda jumbled. But a few observations from this:
  • Those Friends colors really fill out the palette! Without them, there would be a big gap on the Magenta side.
  • Although there are only 41 individual colors, what we have now is is a pretty nice even distribution of colors. Of course, that's without regard to actual parts availability -- more on that below.
  • Only a third of the colors are the highly saturated ones you see around the outside, that you associate with LEGO as a toy. The rest are toward the center -- less saturated, more naturalistic colors for making "real looking" stuff. 
Ok great, now I'm a little more familiar with the palette. But I also know that some colors are much rarer than others. If I were designing something, let's say something big, what colors would I be likely to find the most parts in? Let's turn the LDD palette into a bar graph (click for color IDs and names):

This is based on BrickLink data on the number of types of part known to exist in each color. A color gets just a tile if it has <100 part types; plus a plate if it has up to 500, or two if it has up to 1,000; or one brick per 1,000 part types, rounded to the nearest 1,000. (Of course, you could do a similar graph based on the number of parts, or types of parts, available to buy, or their average cost. This graph is just one indication.)

In my collection, the most common colors are Light and Dark Stone Grey. (That's probably because I bought a lot of Star Wars.) But in general, if you were building something big, the graph suggests you'd consider White, Bright Red, Bright Yellow, and Black, with some Bright Blue accents. Sounds a lot like a traditional children's toy, doesn't it? Hmm.

Those "rare" and "new" colors have a lot of catching up to do, and for now we'll rightly treasure those unusual browns, magentas, and blues. Use them wisely! 

In future blog posts, we'll get into individual colors and their uses, as well as some LEGO themes and their color schemes.

LEGO Color References

All the references used above, plus a few more:

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Attack of the LEGO Clones

Can you spot the clones? If you can, you've probably wasted too much of your life on LEGO :)

An eBay order came in the mail today. Sadly, a few parts turned out not to be authentic LEGO. Probably a few Mega Bloks just crept in, right? So I've contacted the seller about exchanging them.

But wait a minute -- why do I care? The "clone" parts are almost identical to the LEGO parts in the same lot. If you look look closely are there tiny differences in dimensions, color, and finish. If I used the clone parts, very likely they wouldn't be noticed. I've seen comparable color variations between authentic LEGO parts (e.g., I recently got two shades of Bright Yellow in the same new set), and there are authentic LEGO parts with slightly different dimensions (e.g., a jumper plate with groove or without).

So why do I care, and how valid are the supposed reasons for caring?

Physical differences. The clone parts might actually be of different physical quality. They might not lock as tightly, or might break or degrade more easily. But as far as I can tell the clone parts I just received function well enough to use. I own old, worn, faded (but authentic) parts with comparable physical problems, yet I value them higher. Why?

Authenticity. It feels "wrong" for another maker to "imitate" LEGO parts. So far, though, LEGO hasn't succeeded in making that legal case. If the courts of several countries think it's ok, who am I to argue? Don't I use generic drugs if I know they have the same ingredients? If the clone parts were identical to LEGO and cheaper, wouldn't I set aside fairness to save money?

Purism. Many LEGO fans make a point of "purism' in their MOCs. There's a sense in the community that using non-LEGO objects in MOCs is "cheating"; not that it's malicious, but that it circumvents agreed-upon design constraints. Whoa there! If the clone is functionally the same shape and color as an authentic part, what design constraint is being violated? Cost? (Are we comfortable saying that having the money to buy authentic parts is a condition for participating?)

Expertise. As LEGO fans, we value our own expertise. Like enthusiasts in any hobby, we love to be able to pick out differences that the uninitiated wouldn't notice, and scorn things that the uninitiated wouldn't care about. It builds our self-esteem and sense of community. But does it really have anything to do with building a MOC?

Collecting. Some of our enthusiasm for LEGO comes from the sense of "collecting" things, and collectibles need to be "authentic", and preferably expensive. We want our collections to have value, and we don't like someone getting the same thing for less. Does that notion have anything to do with building MOCs? Not really, but it's part of our community's values, and it spills over to building.

Marketing. We also value the authenticity of "real" LEGO because it's a positive brand that we've come to value. Think of your favorite breakfast cereal. The store brand could taste identical in a double-blind taste test, but if you know which one is the brand you love, that's a factor in decision making (along with cost) -- even though it's functionally irrelevant. That's the power of branding and advertising.

None of that is meant to knock LEGO or the AFOL community. LEGO makes a high quality product and wants us to buy it, like any company; the AFOL community creates standards and values, like any community.

So now what? I'm still sitting here looking at these four clone parts. I can logically convince myself there's no reason to care. I may pay more for return shipping than the authentic parts would be worth. And yet, they're going back ...

What would you do?


Welcome to the LEGO Theory blog! This is a place for thinking (possibly too hard) about our beloved LEGO.

I like to build with LEGO, and probably you do too. So I'll mainly focus on aspects of LEGO that are relevant to building. We'll discuss LEGO colors, parts, and techniques. But sometimes things will get a little more philosophical -- that's ok too.

I like to look at MOCs, and probably you do too. There are great places to do that online, some of which are listed in the sidebar on the right. I'll be showing some MOCs as examples, but it's not the goal of this blog to update you on the latest great builds.

I'm sure I'll make plenty of mistakes, and I'm glad to hear your corrections or ideas. I've just started building as an AFOL eight months ago, and LEGO is a vast trans clear iceberg, only the tip of it visible above the trans blue waves.

Glad to have you along!